Lawmakers target teen drivers, texting

Texting while driving increases the odds of causing a wreck, according to studies and statistics. (JC AMBERLYN/Miner)

Texting while driving increases the odds of causing a wreck, according to studies and statistics. (JC AMBERLYN/Miner)

PHOENIX – State lawmakers are moving to keep cell phones out of the hands of the newest drivers while behind the wheel.

But the practice apparently will remain legal for the other 5 million Arizona motorists and anyone else who drives in the state.

Members of the Senate Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure voted 6-1 Tuesday, Jan. 24, to spell out that those with instructional permits cannot use hand-held devices for any reason at all. That includes not only texting but also talking on the phone.

SB 1080 also extends that restriction to those with a Class G license – the first license available to teens – for the first six months they are on the road.

But Sen. Bob Worsley, R-Mesa, said he will not give a hearing this year to either SB 1049 or SB 1135, which are much broader measures.

The former, crafted by Sen. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, would making texting and messaging using hands illegal for anyone behind the wheel, regardless of age. The other from Steve Farley, D-Tucson, also applies to all motorists but is more comprehensive, covering not only texting and messaging but also requires the use of a hands-free device to make a call.

Worsley, however, said he wants to take baby steps.

“We’re going to start and see how this goes,” he told Capitol Media Services, with SB 1080 covering only about 1 percent of those licensed in the state.

“I’m going to learn kind of what the issues are this year on this one,” Worsley explained. “And then we’ll expand from there if it goes well.”

He noted that the Senate has not taken up any kind of texting legislation for at least four years. That is because Andy Biggs, who was the Senate president, unilaterally blocked consideration of the issue, even when measures already had been approved by the House.

Biggs is now gone, having been elected to Congress. And current Senate President Steve Yarbrough has not exercised any kind of veto on the issue.

SB 1080 is being shepherded through the process by Sen. Karen Fann, R-Prescott, who sponsored similar measures in prior years when she was in the House.

Fann said what she’s trying to do is not a big stretch. She pointed out there already are restrictions on Class G drivers, ranging from having no more than one unrelated teen in the vehicle to a ban on driving between midnight and 5 a.m. without a parent present unless it’s for something like going to work.

The texting and talking ban, Fann said, fits right in.

“The sole purpose is these young people need to be concentrating, not be distracted by others in the car, by other things going on,” she said. “They need to learn good driving habits.”

Texting or even talking on the phone while driving is something some young drivers already self-regulate.

Prescott High School student Jackson Dicker, 17, admits to occasionally texting while driving, but often resists the temptation.

“I don’t want to make it a habit, so I don’t do it a lot,” Dicker said.

For PHS student Ann Roskos, 18, whether or not to use her phone while driving when she first got a driver’s license wasn’t even up to her.

“My grandparents said ‘don’t text and drive’ and took my phone away from me,” Roskos said.

That only lasted a couple of days because her grandparents needed to be able to know where she was when she would leave the house, but the demand stuck.

“I don’t even like using my phone when I drive,” Roskos said. “Like if somebody calls me, I won’t pick it up unless it’s my grandma and I know it’s urgent.”

However, she believes most teenagers act differently.

“Ninety-nine percent of idiot teenage kids use their phone on the road,” Roskos said.

Kavanagh said he’s philosophical about Worsley’s decision to start with teens.

“The practical side of me which has been developed over the last 11 years makes me realize that we may actually be lucky if we get the limited one that he’s proposing through,” he said, citing the fact that efforts to ban any form of texting while driving have failed for more than a decade.

He said, though, that if the only restriction will be on teens, SB 1080 should be amended to eliminate the “secondary enforcement” provision of that bill. That says a citation for texting can be issued only if police have first pulled someone over for another reason. Put another way, someone cannot be stopped solely because they appear to be texting.

But Farley, who has sponsored similar legislation for years, is not ready to give up.

“I think that there’s a lot of support to finally getting this monkey and making this illegal along with the 48 other states that have,” he said. And Farley said limiting the law to teens sends the wrong message.

“You’re telling teenagers after six months of driving, ‘It’s A-OK to text and drive,’” he said. Farley said he will pursue efforts to have the full Senate approve an across-the-board texting and calling ban.

At Tuesday’s hearing, however, Sen. Juan Mendez, D-Tempe, was the only member of the committee to vote against the measure as not going far enough. He said he has worked with high school students.

“I don’t understand the idea of telling them that they can’t do something at this age but at this next age it’s OK,” Mendez said. “I feel like they don’t listen to that.”

Sen. Lisa Otondo, D-Yuma, agreed that she wants a more comprehensive measure. But she said that does not justify killing this bill. “At the end of the day I believe this bill will save a life,” Otondo said.

Prescott Daily Courier reporter Max Efrein contributed to this story.